Sunday, October 04, 2015

Education-for-Employment : The Role of Information

I spent a lot of time over the last few years at the fault line of education and employment. This is a sort of no man's land, a messy swamp of practice that many educators would ignore in their pursuit of an imaginary complete individual who need not care for a job! The employers, who built industrial-scale recruitment operations with the aim of commoditizing hiring, would not bother too much about this area, which fell outside their area of influence. Well-meaning executives, who privately wished for better education in their country and community, thought it best not to challenge educators in their own turf, recognizing the institutional nature of education and feeling rather powerless to change anything. However, almost everyone admitted there was indeed a big gap, and a range of initiatives were spawned in the recent years to solve the problem.

In this, I had taken the usual journey. It started with seeking out better courses - could one design courses to meet the ever-changing needs of the employers - before the realisation, that it is a moving target, set in. That led to the quest for greater employer involvement, and soon the limitations of insatiable here-and-now demands of Corporate recruiters were all too apparent. The Education-to-Employment territory, a battle zone of ideas, is indeed littered with wasted efforts, with different education providers each claiming to do a better job than others, and yet, no one formula has ever worked in scale.

My exposure to different markets and education systems give me some ideas why this may be so. Whether or not education is marketised (or should be marketised), Graduate Hiring is a market in action. The dynamic of this market varies from nation to nation, and profession to profession, but it is nonetheless a market, which, in most cases, do not work very well. It is the lack of understanding how this market works, both by the educators and the strategy-makers on the employer side, keeps the education-to-employment gap widening.

Indeed, any talk about markets is an anathema for educators, though it need not be so. Recognising the dynamic of the graduate hiring market can solve a number of dilemmas in Higher Education. A market operates on information, and enabling better information flow and influencing the market structure, can significantly enhance the ability of the educators to secure better outcome for the students. When we talk about competency-based assessment or project-based learning, we are not necessarily talking about a better pedagogy - one can argue that such methods are more suitable in specific cases and subject areas and less in others - but an information structure more readily matched with employers.

After a close involvement in the labour markets in the Developing world, I see what happens when the parties involved - colleges and corporate recruiters - do not engage in information exchange, but look for proxies instead. The most usual proxy is college ranking and prestige, which is near universal, though it creates uneven distribution of job offers and talent (because such prestige, by definition, depend on securing most offers and educating least number of graduates), and because this is an imperfect proxy of the candidates' ability to do the job, often causes disappointment. Besides, such proxies get even worse as the relative position of the graduates from top institutions in these countries, as they deem themselves to be so much better than everyone else, creates other problems, such as a sense of entitlement that prevents learning, and indeed, the desire to move overseas.

The other proxy, common in some sectors and industries, is internships of various kinds. Surveys of recruiters in the United States point to greater emphasis put on internships than academic achievement, and this is because internships convey better information to the recruiters - or at least, the kind of information they are looking for - than the transcripts. The problem is that internship is an extremely costly affair - not many can afford working without pay and paying for boarding, lodging and other associated expenses - not to mention that internships are still driven by connections rather than merit.

My point remains that the educators can do more to bridge the education-to-employment problem by seeking to assess, and to provide to recruiters better information about the students ability. To do this, they do not have to abandon the idea of broader education. In fact, this approach may rejuvenate the humanities, and other disciplines, that routinely loses out in the job markets. A scholar in history could do painstaking textual research, a graduate in psychology learns experimental design and a sociology student does fieldwork in the communities, but while certain recruiters may value these abilities, their transcripts do not talk about these things. Instead, it is littered with subjects and marks which are of no relevance to recruiters. Educators design assessments and transcripts with an inward-looking mindset -  they assume all their students are preparing for a contemplative lives of scholars - and this discriminates against those looking to pursue an active life of economic participation. Recognising this as a legitimate aspiration, and making available feedback and information that could be used for professional matching, would make education much more relevant and motivating to all concerned.

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